Dance Hall Crashers
The Live Record
Once upon a time, there were two ska-punk bands, both working their asses off in a land called California. They both played a ton of shows, had a lot of the same fans, and got lumped together a lot because they were both ska bands fronted (at least part-time, back then) by women, something that hadn't happened much since Pauline Black fronted The Selecter back in the Two-Tone days. Both bands appeared on a damn cool little comp called California Ska-Quake. But then, through some fluke of chance in the music industry (I'll be polite and call it that, anyway), one of the two bands suddenly became the Belle of the Ball. They made it on the cover of every music mag from here to Mars, pouted on MTV, and lived like big-time rockstars.
The weird thing, to me, is that it was No Doubt went on to get huge (I figured I'd drop the goofy metaphor, since you probably figured out who I'm talking about a paragraph ago), and not the Dance Hall Crashers. I remember listening to Ska-Quake quite a few years back, hearing both bands, and then watching, absolutely mystified, as No Doubt's watered-down, boring pseudo-ska-pop climbed the charts, leaving the DHC in the dust. It felt like the world had been turned on its head; what the hell happened?
Of course, years on down the road, I'm a heck of a lot more jaded and tend to expect that sort of shit from the music industry, but it still irks me. I hadn't heard a whole lot from the Crashers since that first tantalizing glimpse on that comp, but from the first ten seconds of the first track (the supremely energetic opener "Go"), I was sitting shaking my head, more convinced than ever that the wrong band got to grab the brass ring. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better, tighter, and catchier ska-punk band than these folks, truly. They manage to weld ska, speedy punk, and flat-out rock all together into their own distinctive sound, and then top it all off with a heavy dose of melody and sweet harmonizing by the true heirs to Ms. Black's Selecter crown.
Best of all, you can't pick out even a bit of bitterness about the whole mess -- 'cause who the fuck really cares, anyway? The Dance Hall Crashers are still here, still playing what they love and only getting better, still making their fans happy as hell (if the crowd noise here is any barometer), and I guarantee they'll be around much longer than any genre-hopping flash in the pan. And at the end of the day, that's what counts. (JH)
(Pink & Black Records -- P.O. Box 190516, San Francisco, CA. 94199; firstname.lastname@example.org)
Who'd a thunk it? Pasty-white kids from the British Isles rapping American-style, and on Massive Attack's Melankolic imprint, no less. No trip-hop here, though, just straight-up hip-hop from the back streets of Bristol. Actually, that's a little misleading, because Ordinary Man is far from straight-up -- the album is a mishmash of odd samples, beats, and sounds courtesy of DJ Donni Hardwidge, with introspective musings over the top by transplanted Irishman Phelim Byrne, and the result is something unlike almost anything out there. There're elements of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul here, as well as a compelling resemblance to Michael Ivey' hip-hop-pop Basehead, but the originality more than overwhelms any influences Day One might claim.
Maybe it's the cultural gap that does it. Hip-hop has always been an American style of music, born out of the mostly black neighborhoods of NYC, and almost any American hip-hop you hear has 2 decades of history to draw upon; certain things are done a certain way, certain styles rise and fall, and the hip-hop scene as a whole all has a lot of collective baggage to carry. Cross the Atlantic, though, and hip-hop's history is much less pervasive -- the culture is different, both above- and underground, there are less preconceptions, and in a way, there's more freedom. If you're a pair of young white guys from Bristol, how do you connect with that American hip-hop continuum? You can't, so you're forced to improvise and do things your own way. Ordinary Man throws the rulebook out the window, and in that way it almost transcends traditional hip-hop labels. There's a lot of pop sensibility on here, particularly on "Waiting for a Break," "Trying Too Hard," and the King Missile-sounding out-and-out pop song "In Your Life," right alongside a few almost Irish folk touches ("Autumn Rain") and, weirdest of all, some well-placed strings ("I'm Doing Fine").
Phelim's lyrics break the rules, as well, relying more on storytelling and less on braggadocio. At his best, he's almost a street-corner philosopher/poet, naively exposing his most personal thoughts for anybody who'll listen. It only becomes painful once, on the aforementioned "In Your Life," which is so sweetly romantic it can almost be forgiven, and the rest of the time the words fit the music perfectly -- the collective sound of two everyday, ordinary men trying to emulate the style of their American counterparts and failing (maybe), but stumbling onto something more interesting and nearly unique in the process. (JH)
Death Cab For Cutie
we have the facts and we're voting yes
I remember opining in the mid-'90s that the limits of music had been defined (from Cage's silence pieces to Merzbow's pure noise), and that all that was left was to fill in the spaces. Whether or not this was true, it marginalizes the concept of filling in the spaces. There's still plenty of room for brilliant music to be made that doesn't redefine our concept of music but still communicates a clear, individual vision. And, for my money, Death Cab for Cutie's 2nd record fits this description to a T. You could make comparisons to other bands -- Bedhead, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Sebadoh, Joel Phelps-era Silkworm -- but ultimately they'd misguide you more than they'd direct you. DCFC have a distinct sound, from their chiming guitars to the understated but powerful vocals to the oblique but not obtuse lyrics, and spend the whole album defining variations on this sound that are never repetitions (even when they are repetitions -- you'll have to hear tracks 7 and 8 to understand what I mean). And somehow the effort in production accentuates the record, instead of causing it to come off as "overproduced" or "polished." Strongly recommended. (DD)
(Barsuk Records -- P.O. Box 31016, Seattle, WA. 98103)
The Deluxtone Rockets
I must've blinked, because the swing craze seems to be over. What will become of those who benefitted most from it? Brian Setzer'll go back to playing clubs instead of theatres, all the while collecting the royalties from every '80s compilation/soundtrack that thinks we don't have enough copies of "Rock This Town." Louis Prima will stop selling so many records, which is no big deal since the guy's been dead since I was 4. And bands like the Deluxtone Rockets will hurt.
And, really, nobody but the band will feel it. Bringing nothing to the genre but the genre, the Deluxtone Rockets latch on to the easy aspects of swing music and don't let go or attempt to broaden their grip (the inclusion of a more rockabilly-appropriate lyrical and visual focus notwithstanding, since it's not clear whether this is intentional). The result, as evidenced by The Deluxtone Rockets, is a record that sounds pretty good for a song or two and then suddenly doesn't. The songs are not exactly boring but incredibly samey; once you've heard one, you've heard them all. Actually, you've probably heard them all anyway.
The Deluxtone Rockets gain points for writing their own songs (take that, Setzer!), and see them when they come to town, by all means; I'll bet they put on a hell of a show. But when the show's over and you want something to listen to, you'll do much better with Prima. (MH)
(Tooth & Nail Records -- P.O. Box 12698, Seattle, WA. 98111; email@example.com; http://www.toothandnail.com/)
Pop Trio of the Week
Okay, so I'd better start this off with a confession: I really have no concrete idea just why I like Dig Dug. I mean, speedy, melodic, Green Day-inflected pop-punk with boyish, naïve vocals isn't exactly anything new, right? Granted, Dig Dug manage to fit into the pop-punk field without swinging too far towards the Fat Wreck or emocore ends of the axis, which is a good thing, but even still, I don't think that's the sole appeal.
What really gets me about these guys is, well, familiarity. Dig Dug are one of those bands where I see them play or listen to their music and feel a bond between us, stated or not; they warm my heart because I can remember very vividly the painful insecurity and awkwardness their lyrics describe. Take "Photogenic," for an example: "Am I really that ugly?/Do I really look like that?/God, I sound so stupid" -- how many people out there can relate to that one? Let's see some hands, people. How about the album's starter, "Dance": "I wish/I could/I could dance real good"?
Simply put, Dig Dug are a band of shy rock geeks (who even namecheck AC/DC, Slash, Kip Winger, and the video game "Frogger" in their liner notes) who also happen to be extremely talented and write some beautiful, heartfelt pop songs disguised as punk rock; fellows rock geeks everywhere, unite. (JH)
(Act Your Age Records -- 3244 Locke Ln., Houston, TX. 77019-6208; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.actyouragerecords.com/)
The Dismemberment Plan
Emergency & I
There are some great records and bands that are the product of absorbing and synthesizing so many disparate influences that no band will ever sound quite like that, no matter how hard they try. Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, the first Tortoise record, and Guided By Voices's Alien Lanes hop immediately to mind as recent examples. I've only listened to it a few times, but I think I'm comfortable placing the new Dismemberment Plan record at that level. Reviewers have pointed everywhere from Devo to Talking Heads in an attempt to find a comparison for the new Plan record, and they (inadvertently) prove the point: The Plan have become a grand singularity, a force of nature. Their record collection undoubtedly contains both Devo and Talking Heads, and Shudder to Think and the Who and the Boredoms and Bob Dylan and Circus Lupus and New Order and hundreds of other artists whose sensibilities may only be reflected for seconds in this records. And they've got more keyboards than ever before, and unlike 98.5% of the indie-rock universe, they know what to do with them.
This is a record that is sequenced utterly unintuitively, but with an absolute logic that reveals itself with additional listens. "A Life Of Possibilities," the opener, is a relatively low-key song that you would expect on a superficial level to be found tucked in the last third of the record, while the closer, "Back and Forth" (which, I'll admit, fits nicely with top-level Talking Heads classics like "Once In A Lifetime" on many levels), is one of the catchiest songs ever, much less to be stuck at the end of the record, while the dynamic arrangement of "You Are Invited" always makes me think that it's the album's closer (even though it's only halfway through). What becomes clear, after listening a couple times, is that this is a record with an absolute confidence; they could have opened the record with an impossibly manic catchy song like "Girl O'Clock" that would grab your attention immediately, but they know you'll stick around, and if not, it's your loss. And ending with "Back and Forth" (my favorite pop song of the year, now) is, in effect a dare. The Plan dares you to not start the record over again, or at least not to hit the "Back" button, instead of letting the next random (and probably disappointing) disc on your player to take over. This kind of quiet confidence permeates everything in the record -- the unabashedly literate lyrics (which transcend the goofiness of their earlier records), the talented but not showy musicianship, the deceptively simple guitar lines, the arrangements which have more depth than noticed on a first listen...yeah. Give The Plan a try; I imagine you'll be happy you did. (DD)
(DeSoto Records -- P.O. Box 60932, Washington, DC. 20039; http://www.desotorecords.com/)
It's always strange to hear a record by an artist that you've seen perform a number of times. Even by those standards, listening to Day One was jarring. Sarah Dougher performs around Portland, Oregon, alone, with her voice and her electric guitar (I almost said "just her voice and guitar," but saying "just" implies a diminution of that activity which is undeserved), and before this record came out I was already able to sing along with at least half of the songs (albeit with occasionally butchered lyrics on my part). But when I put in this record, I discovered a full band. The same songs, but with drums, bass, second guitar. The sweeping guitar lines of "Secret Porno Collector" transmogrified into an austere piano arrangement. The ending of "Hold the Bar" with a couple of bars of the Replacements' "Unsatisfied" -- gone. It reminded me of picking up my prom date, who generally wore jeans, and finding her in a peach dress and her hair pinned up with matching peach flowers. Any thoughts of beauty or not were swept aside in a wave of utter confusion and cognitive dissonance.
Anyway, for most of you, the last paragraph is irrelevant -- you're going into this without my preconceptions, chances are. Good for you -- you'll probably move directly into "hey, this is a good record" without a confusing intermediary period. Sarah Dougher, after Corrina Repp, is my favorite Portland female singer-songwriter. Her work seems to hit a perfect balance between the two oft-fatal poles of most female singer-songwriting, the overly strident riot girl rant and the high school diary confessional. Dougher somehow manages to be forceful without being strident, and manages to speak plainly without inducing embarassment in the listener. (Actually, her live reference to the Replacements is apt; her lyrical approach reminds me of Paul Westerberg's early work, before he sank into the mediocrity where he resides today.) This is due at least as much to her voice as to the words; Dougher could sing the classified ads (although I wouldn't recommend it), and you'd believe it was something she believed in her heart and wanted to convince you about. Actually, she does almost the equivalent in covering The Eagles' "Take It To The Limit," and pulls out emotional content from that song you'd never guessed was there.
On a musical level, the arrangements have grown on me, but by and large the collected band is pretty much just serviceable. Then again, it's on K Records, where the point has almost never been the musicianship. Taken on that level, they provide a thoroughly acceptable setting for Dougher's songs and voice. And, there's a sufficient variety (from the solo "Girl In New Orleans" to the piano of "Secret Porno Collector" to the full band of "Day One" and "Hold The Bar") to render the songs generally distinct. But, really, all of that's kind of beside the point. The point is hearing a lyric as simple as "This is where I want to live" and feeling an empathy you would never expect from reading that line on the page. (DD)
(K Records -- P.O. Box 7154, Olympia, WA. 98507; http://www.kpunk.com/)
That skinny motherfucker with the high voice?
Reviewing an album of cover songs is always an iffy proposition -- you always have to ask "is there a point to this?" I mean, why the hell review an album of songs somebody else already did, and probably better? 90% of the time, there's not enough reinvention going on to justify the effort, but this time, it sure feels like there is. That skinny motherfucker with the high voice? is a whole album/EP of covers of songs by The Artist (or Prince, or "zink!," as friends have suggested that goofy symbol should be pronounced), as interpreted by pop folks Dump (okay, "folk," since it's apparently all the work of Yo La Tengo's James McNew, barring an occasional guest farfisa). So why bother with this? Well, because when you throw out the Purple One's overwhelming ego, the theatrics and the over-the-top campiness of his live shows, what you're left with are some beautiful, classic pop songs. Dump transform "When U Were Mine" into a sparkling Magnetic Fields-ish love song, "Erotic City" into a crazy, lo-fi Sebadoh-style rave-up, and best of all, the dreadfully-overplayed hit "1999" into a delicate, melancholy (yet still poppy) millennial warning. McNew truly makes the songs his own -- and to me, the best kind of cover is one that you can listen to and never even realize it's a cover, but still love anyway. (JH)
(Shrimper Records -- P.O. Box 1837, Upland, CA. 91785-1837)